Jayme Whitney from Proserpine Machinery Service inside the damaged building of their business.
Jayme Whitney from Proserpine Machinery Service inside the damaged building of their business. Tony Martin

100 days of devastation: Proserpine 'feels forgotten'

WITH its Category 4 winds and pelting rain, Tropical Cyclone Debbie pounded the coastal towns of Airlie Beach and Bowen and tore through Proserpine.

The rural town's population of 3390 copped the full brunt of Debbie's force, and 100 days after she ripped through, Proserpine is still trying to rebuild.

Although a number of businesses have been able to reopen in some capacity, others have not been so lucky.

Some banks are still not open. The Whitsunday Regional Council's customer service centre, which was originally relocated to the Proserpine Library before being moved to a building in Main St, remains closed.

The Department of Transport and Main Roads building is still boarded up.

Many aren't able to trade as they wait for insurance payouts to be finalised; and the locals are calling on the State Government to do more.

 

The Minister for Small Business Leeanne Enoch was in town this week announcing free counselling service for small business owners and their families in Proserpine, however it's a helping hand that falls short for locals who feel the impact of Debbie on the region has long been forgotten.

Mark Couglan, owner of Focus On Flooring Xtra, who lost most of his ceiling in his showroom and all of his warehouse stock, believes that small communities like Proserpine always miss out.

"Lots of the area has just simply been forgotten about," he told the Mercury.

"I'm sure that if this happened in one of the big suburbs in Brissie, this wouldn't be happening.

"In Hydeaway Bay and Dingo Beach, insurance assessors haven't even been there."

 

But, business owners like Mr Couglan, tried to reopen their doors as quickly as possible to help get the community back on track.

"We got out and fixed it all up straight away, because the community needed us," he said. "It's actually been quite busy since.

"That's not to say that it hasn't been a tough process.

"Everyone's trying to get things back on course, but it'll take a long time.

"Locals have been patient and positive, but some people have had terrible experiences with their insurance companies."

 

Mark Coughlan from Focus On Flooring Xtra is now working from his store but the back storage shed is still damaged. The wall has been blown off from the side of the shed.
Mark Coughlan from Focus On Flooring Xtra is now working from his store but the back storage shed is still damaged. The wall has been blown off from the side of the shed. Tony Martin

Looking on the bright side, Mr Couglan said parts of the town did need a facelift, and a lot of older units around the area were due for a refurbishment.

"Tourism will be the big winner, and so will the region (once we're rebuilt)," he said.

Remaining positive is what's encouraging business owners to rebuild and start again.

When Jayme Whitney went to check on her business, Proserpine Machinery Service, the morning after Cyclone Debbie made landfall, the destruction was apparent even before arriving at the shop.

"When we came down to see how we fared, we could see the damage immediately," Ms Whitney said. "The roof was in the side yard. We'd never contemplated that the roof could even come off."

 

Already distressed at the thought of the massive clean-up ahead of them, she couldn't believe what she saw when she walked inside.

"We opened the doors, and it was worse than what we thought. Everything inside was wet and destroyed. Everything was everywhere.

"Worst of all, we found out that we had asbestos in the ceiling, which meant that most of our stuff had to be quarantined and taken away."

Ms Whitney said they tried to look at whether there was anything that they could salvage, before setting out to find a premise they could continue their business from.

With the cane crushing season looming, Ms Whitney knew they needed to have their shop up and running as soon as possible.

One hundred days later, the daughter of former Whitsunday Mayor Jennifer Whitney, runs her business from a premise behind the shop while repairs take place.

Despite still not having a roof, she said her main aim was just to be there for her community and her customers.

"The hardest part is trying to find reference material that we've always had, but we don't have any longer," Ms Whitney said.

"We're trying to get the parts we need for our customers, and contain them in a small price, whilst having to pay for all of this."

Ms Whitney believes that Cyclone Debbie has brought the community together, and residents continued to support one another by trying to shop locally as much as they could.

"The weeks have just merged into one another. We're running on an adrenalin high, and we're not giving up," she said.

"Proserpine is a strong community. Everyone's willing to work together and help each other out as much as they can. We're a tight-knit group usually, but this has just brought everyone together even more."

 

Steve Cassells from Whitsunday Bakery suffered minor dame in the Cyclone.
Steve Cassells from Whitsunday Bakery suffered minor dame in the Cyclone. Tony Martin

Business 'slowing down'

Although some businesses reported an increase in customers immediately after they opened their doors post-Debbie, they admit it's begun to slow down again.

Whitsunday Bakery owner Steve Cassells says the downturn over the past two months has been noticed.

"We were super busy when we reopened, because there weren't many businesses open," he said. "Those first 30 days were incredibly busy, but then it started to slow down.

"We're still fairly busy, because of all the extra people in town and the milling's got going, but not as much as before."

Mr Cassells describes his experience after the cyclone as far better than others in town, saying his damage was fixed within two days.

"We really only had minor damage compared to the rest of the businesses in the street," he said. "The roof leaked and let some water in, and now we're just waiting for the carpet to be replaced."

Many, if not all business owners within Proserpine The Daily Mercury spoke to, vented their frustration with varying levels of government, claiming grants weren't flowing freely.

 

Cathy Selman from Epicure Homewares is open but there is still a lot to do.
Cathy Selman from Epicure Homewares is open but there is still a lot to do. Tony Martin

Cathy Selman of Epicure Homewares said despite the town now being on the path to recovery, the general feeling was that Proserpine had been left off the map completely by the government.

"The business grants and availability for funding were too hard to access," Ms Selman said. "None of us got any funding that's been circulated in the media.

"We've all done the hard yards ourselves, packing all the gear up ourselves and repacking it. We didn't get any support for the removing of any stock."

 

And while many business owners have been trying to get their shops reopen, their houses have been left neglected.

"We haven't even started with the house, and our car's been flooded," Ms Selman said. "We're on a waiting list for that, which gets repaired in August."

Despite all the waiting, the residents of Proserpine say that they've come together as a town and faced the hurdles as a family.

They're stronger, more resilient and well on their way to recovering and rebuilding their beautiful town.

Taking its toll

Cafe owner Sarah Oehlert says that while her business is back up and running, the feeling of being unable to see the light at the end of the 'tunnel of recovery' continues to take its toll on her each day.

"It's been quite hard, and a huge learning process of rebuilding and the process that you have to go through. It's been both frustrating and sad."

Sarah's business suffered large amounts of water damage, with the ceiling falling in and water seeping through and down onto her machinery.

As Sarah describes it, "it was terrible."

 

Despite both her business and her home taking its toll from Debbie, Sarah says she felt like she let her community down by not reopening faster.

"I felt like we weren't helping our community by being able to give them food and all the other things that the community needs. But, it's just good to be open now."

Sarah describes the feeling of having her business open again as "awesome", and said that it was nice to see her regular customers back.

 

Sarah and Ivan Oehlert who own The Blaze Cafe in Proserpine.
Sarah and Ivan Oehlert who own The Blaze Cafe in Proserpine. Tony Martin

While Sarah's café has reopened, returning to her house that resembles that a "war zone" is a constant reminder of the devastating effects of the March cyclone.

"We've got walls down, the roof needs fixing, we've got a dishwasher in the middle of our lounge room and there's things everywhere in the kitchen.

"But, the focus was to get the shop back up and running. All of our focus, our money, our effort and energy went back into getting our shop reopened."

Despite all this, Sarah tries to keep a positive attitude about it all.

"We'll work on the home after - we get one day off a week, so it'll get done sometime."

'Some people won't be in their homes for years'

Whitsundays Computers and Stationery owner Garry Stewart says that despite the rain and cleanup, the biggest challenge that's come from Cyclone Debbie has been the insurers in its wake.

"Once we managed to clean up and get the doors open, we contacted the insurance company and the builder to try and start the ball rolling as soon as we could," he explains.

"Then we came against the brick wall - the insurers - and we were climbing that wall for five weeks. We had to contact the Insurance Council of Australia, and they're who got us back to where we are now."

 

Mr Stewart describes the post-cyclone coordination efforts as "chaotic" and says the lack of communication from the government was frustrating.

"People came into my shop almost in tears, they had no idea what they were entitled to," he said. "Unless you were destitute or dying, no one could access any money from any of the schemes.

"There's been absolutely no co-ordination. There doesn't seem to be anyone wanting to care. People came to my house and took photos and notes, then we never saw or heard from them again."

Although repairs are slowly beginning to get under way, he says residents feel they have been forgotten.

"I spoke to one lady yesterday, and she had no idea who was even fixing her house - she just had no idea who was coming or going, she just hasn't been told," Mr Stewart said.

 

Garry Stewart from Whitsunday Computers and Stationery inside his shop. Garry and his wife Rebecca are working from the other side of their store.
Garry Stewart from Whitsunday Computers and Stationery inside his shop. Garry and his wife Rebecca are working from the other side of their store. Tony Martin

It is only 100 days on from Debbie, but he says it feels more like "1000 days".

"The effect of Debbie was just devastating - hopefully we never get another one like that in our lifetime. The destruction in our premise was close to annihilation."

Proserpine residents are getting back on track, but Mr Stewart says there's still a lot of work to do.

"For some people it will just drag on. It'll drag on at our business for another month, then no doubt we'll have another 6-8 weeks to fight the insurers at home to fix our house, which looks like a disaster zone. If it's all fixed up in two years, I'll be surprised. Some people won't be in their houses for years."


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